Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe… Tom Robinson.
Okay first off, I’ll admit the central theme of this film is not the greatness of America, there is no denying that, but the theme is there.
First off this is a great patriotic film, because as I have said before we Americans are able to admit our mistakes, own up to them, learn from them and then move on. And this film makes clear some of our worst behavior without giving a blanket indictment to all Americans past, present and future.
Think about it, which other countries are so open about their flaws?
I looked around and I couldn’t find that there were any monuments in England to their treatment of Catholics or to their actions in India (I could be wrong and if I am please tell me). And if you go to Japan try and find public acknowledgement of Nanking, Bataan, or Pearl Harbor…that has some very interesting selective amnesia. And let’s not forget Russia seems on the verge of re-embracing their darkest days. But as America is a nation that does not believe in pedigree or the idea that the sins (or virtues) of the father automatically fall to the son, we aren’t told to feel personally guilty for the actions of our ancestors (like the German education system seems to be based on a near daily dose of “We are terrible evil people”—I’m sorry but the children nowadays, while they should knows what happened, shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about something they didn’t do). Only America has, more or less, a history of admitting their flaws and mistakes but not dwelling and wallowing in them—just as an individual should. Yes there are people in this nation that want to make us likes the dregs of Europe either denying our wrongs or wallowing in them as if no redemption is possible, but these people never seem to gain any long term traction because ignorance and guilt are not the American way.
Now, as the opening quote suggests, this is a movie tied heavily to our legal system. Its flaws and its strengths. Atticus’ speech speaks to the hopes of its strengths. Its flawed verdict speaks to the weakness of depending on people who are by nature imperfect for justice (but you come up with a better system). But I think there is a point missed in all the injustice here. The majority of the people act within the rules of the law. Atticus of course always follows the law to the letter (even to the point where he thought he would have to bring his son to court for murder charges)—but it is not just Atticus. The Judge of the story, who could have given any lawyer to Tom Robbinson, ensures he gets the one lawyer in town who will not allow a man he knows to be innocent to be railroaded without even mounting a defense. Further the character of Sheriff Tate when limited by the rules of the law charges a man he doesn’t believe to be innocent, because a complaint has been filed and it is not for the police to determine guilt or innocence…but when it is in his legal power to determine what happened he makes it quite clear “Bob Ewell fell on his knife”…Arthur “Boo” Radley Who? For all the flaws of the legal system shown in this film, it is shown that it is a system worthy of following in this nation because even when it has gross injustices it is still better than the alternative. (Further let us not forget this film was made in the 1960’s and worked as a powerful piece of propaganda to help pass civil rights reform that ended the kind of injustice seen in this film.
And then there is Atticus Finch. A heroes hero whom we all wish we could be more like. And he is a distinctly America kind of hero. He doesn’t care about what the community at large thinks, he doesn’t care what his neighbors say, he doesn’t care when he personally is threatened. He care about his children and what is right. There is no other consideration for the opinion of community or loyalty to society, only what is right. Some countries may ask devotion to “king and country” others demand obedience to race or religion…but America is the nation that glorifies loyalty to self, to reason, and to right. Which is the reason why we love Atticus and admire him so deeply.
Also, a very subtle theme that is tied to the core of America is that action and principle must go hand in hand. Yes Atticus Finch is a man of morals and virtue and character that we should all aspire to. His guiding light of “The main one is that if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do somethin’ again” is a belief that far too many are lacking in the modern world (clearly no one in France or Greece has any conception of this kind of thinking). But the fact of the matter is that there is a certain lack of action in his moral. He stands tall when a piece of filth like Ewell spits in his face and doesn’t give in to the provocation to fight…which if it were just Atticus who was in jeopardy would be fine…but he failed to take into account that Ewell had a history of attacking the defenseless and innocent. Which is why it is Boo Radley who shows the very American propensity for knowing that sometimes you have to put evil people down and make sure they can never get back up again.
Oh, and not on the issue of patriotism…but a fun fact. There is a portion of the movie (and it’s in the book too) about the arrogance of teachers who think that they know everything because they’ve been to college and that parents know nothing. One might call it ironic that this is a book almost every English teacher loves, even though it is insulting the arrogant mentality of most teachers…but they would have to be bright enough to get that point, and, at the least most of the union hacks certainly are nowhere near that bright.